Shanghai’s ageless QFs: Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic surge to 36th meet

Top seed Novak Djokovic will take on number three seed Roger Federer in the semi-finals of the Shanghai Masters

Among the eight men who comprised one the oldest quarter-final line-ups in Masters or Grand Slam history, perhaps the most inevitable winners were the youngest, 27-year-old Novak Djokovic, and the oldest, 33-year-old Roger Federer.

After all, as the growing number of seeds in the top-quality Shanghai draw fell by the wayside, so Federer was able to seize back the No2 ranking from Rafael Nadal to go with this second place in the Race to London. That he sat in the same half as top man Djokovic was just ill fortune.

Each faced one of another four over-30s in the quarters, two 32-year-olds who had thus far more than proven their worth against younger competition: No5 seed David Ferrer had beaten Andy Murray and Martin Klizan; Julien Benneteau had taken out young stars Jack Sock and Grigor Dimitrov.

And playing so well in Shanghai, both Ferrer and Benneteau must have fancied their chances.

The never-say-die spirit of Ferrer had earned him five wins over Djokovic before—though not since the ATP World Tour Finals in 2011—and he had taken the Serb to three sets at this year’s Rome Masters.

But Djokovic had proved to be in the kind of scintillating form that saw him surge to four titles from Beijing to the World Tour Finals last year. The two-time defending champion was on a 28-match unbeaten run in China on the back of his fifth title in Beijing, and stood clear of the competition at the top of the rankings. By a strange quirk, and despite their age difference, both he and Ferrer had won 594 matches to reach this point.

As for Benneteau, he had caused Federer serious problems before. The Frenchman had beaten Federer in two of their three hard-court meetings, most recently in Rotterdam last year—and even more memorably, had Federer at two sets down in Wimbledon in 2012.

But though Federer had looked way off rhythm in fending off five match points in his first Shanghai match, he was looking more like his old self on his second outing. That old self arrived in China as the tour leader in match-wins, 57, in hard-court wins 41, in top-10 wins, 12, and in finals, eight, this season.

So yes, the odds were in favour of the top two men going through, but neither had things entirely their own way.

Ferrer was under pressure from his very first service game, and though he survived, he could not do so again in his second and conceded the single break that would decide the set. But the 6-4 scoreline did not do justice to the intensity of this battle or the quality of the attacking and defensive tennis both forced from one another. Indeed had Ferrer’s first serve hit the mark with its usual reliability, it may have been even closer.

As it was, he earned two break points in a marathon closing game of almost a quarter of an hour. No wonder Djokovic pumped his delight when he at last took the set: It must have felt like an entire match, and both had run a near identical distance in pursuit of that vital opening: 1307m to 1305m.

The second set took rather less time, another 35 minutes, as Ferrer struggled to bounce back. He had, after all, played two long three-setters already. Djokovic dropped just four points on serve and broke Ferrer twice to seal his semi-final place, 6-2.

Federer threw down an impressive gauntlet to Benneteau with a love hold on his opening serve that took just 58 seconds. He did the same in the third game and in the seventh. Twice he had Benneteau at deuce, but the Frenchman has an aggressive game, and came up with some outstanding shots to hold off Federer all the way to a tie-break.

There were net-cord winners, lob winners, stunning sliced volley winners and aces—from both players. But it was terrific returning that marked the start of the tie-break: Neither held a point on serve for the first seven points. Then Federer changed gear with an ace and hit three more first-strike winners for the set, 7-6(4).

The quality of the tennis was writ large in the stats: 20 winners to 10 errors for Federer; 15 winners to nine errors for Benneteau. But that tie-break had taken its toll on the Frenchman, both physically and mentally.

Federer memorably put into words, during the US Open, the problem that so many of his opponents face: “I try to keep them mentally occupied”. And opponents talk of the variety, the disguise, the change of pace and direction that Federer can bring to a tennis court.

That was clear in the second set as, time and again, Benneteau was rooted to the spot as another winner shot past: He misread the plays, and it drained his resolve. He could not win another game and Federer raced to his 52nd Masters semi-final, 6-0, in 69 minutes.

And so Federer and Djokovic will indeed face off for the 36th time, and their results could not be closer: 18-17, with two wins apiece already this year.

Djokovic summed it up: “There is no clear favourite. I think every time we play against each other, it’s a thriller. It’s really a big challenge for both of us. We need to bring our A-game in order to win.”

Federer concurred: “I think we always play tough against each other. I think we’re both in good shape right now. He’s playing a great season again. I’ll give it the best shot I have… I really hope I can come up with some good shot-making and solid play because that’s what it’s going to require against him.”

Federer is not the only 33-year-old making a run in Shanghai, though. Feliciano Lopez, just a month younger than the Swiss, will hope to convert this third Shanghai semi-final into a career-first Masters final when he takes on Gilles Simon—who turns 30 in December.

Men’s tennis, it seems, is aging rather well.

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